The natural environment of the Marble Arch Caves Global Geopark is universally renowned for its tranquillity and beauty, and its exceptional abundance of wildlife or biodiversity.
The biodiversity of the Geopark is the result of the interaction between the changing climate, millions of years of evolution and a long history of human activity. Biodiversity adds greatly to the character and quality of the landscapes in which people live, work, play and learn. It helps shape the economic activities and social values of the area and it forms a distinct part of our heritage and culture.The Geopark is a significant refuge for many important rare species and habitats, a fact that is reflected in the amount and extent of the protected areas of Local, National, European and Global importance contained within it.
Without any human influence on the land, woodlands would dominate. Woodlands began to re-appear at the end of the last Ice Age about 13,000 years ago, and only species such as oak; ash; elm; birch; alder; Scot’s pine; and yew; which arrived before the rising sea levels formed the island of Ireland, are classified as native. Irish woodlands have changed and adapted over the centuries and can be broadly divided into two categories, natural broadleaved woodlands and managed coniferous woodland, both of which are abundant within the Geopark.
Bird life is abundant within the woodlands of the Geopark. Robins, Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and many other species can be seen all year round while summer visitors like willow warblers, chiffchaffs, and spotted flycatchers join the chorus from Spring until the end of Summer. The wildflowers of these woodlands is incredibly diverse and spectacular with sites such as Castle Caldwell and Cladagh Glen displaying carpets of bluebells and wild garlic in the Spring. In Summer look for twayblade orchids growing on the path edges or Broad Leaved Hellaborines in Castle Archdale.
The woodlands of the Geopark also harbour a wealth of mammal species and are a real stronghold for two of our most charismatic and endangered species, the Red Squirrel and the Pine Marten. Ely Lodge Forest and Lough Navar are teeming with Red Squirrels, they gorge themselves on hazelnuts and pine cones which you might be able to find the leftovers of when out walking. The Pine Martens are elusive and more nocturnal, they spend their nights searching for birds eggs, squirrels, nuts, berries and pretty much anything they can get their hands on.
Bogs and Heath
Peat is a soil that is made up of the partially rotted remains of dead plants, which have accumulated on top of each other in cold, waterlogged locations for thousands of years. The areas where peat accumulates are called peatlands or bogs. The lack of nutrients in these habitats means certain plants like Butterwort and Sundews have evolved to capture insects to resolve their nutritional needs. Sphagnum moss is the key species, it dies at its feet and grows at it’s head, the dead material slowly accumulates and compresses and forms peat at a rate of 1cm per 1000 years. Peatland habitats are visible throughout the Geopark with Cuilcagh Mountain Park containing one of the finest examples of intact blanket bog not only in the Geopark but in western Europe.
Heathland is usually distinguished from peatland by the abundance of heathers and small shrubs such as bilberry contained within the habitat. The steep slopes of Cuilcagh Mountain or the hills of Big Dog Forest are great examples of heathland and are home to one of our most ancient species the Common Lizard, which can be seen basking on bare rock on an early summer day.
Montane heath occurs only in upland areas above 600 metres and is very rare, found in only a handful of locations on the island of Ireland one of which is the summit of Cuilcagh Mountain. This habitat is easily identified due to the specialised plants and ground-hugging shrubs, such as club mosses and juniper, which survive in the harsh, hostile conditions.
Upper and Lower Lough Erne, Lough Melvin, Lough Macnean and Lough Oughter are the principal lakes within the Geopark although there are many other small lakes dotted across the lowlands and uplands. Reedbeds, fen peats, wet grasslands and wet woodland are found within the shallows and along the fringes of many of these larger lakes making them significant refuges for a variety of mammal, insect and bird species.
Two of Ireland’s best known rivers, the Erne and Shannon, both rise within the Geopark. A variety of game and coarse fish species thrive in these waters, attracting anglers from near and far. Of particular interest are the unique trout family of Ferox, Gillaroo and Sonaghan, found only in Lough Melvin along with Arctic char and Pollan fish species, both of which have survived since the last Ice Age. Many of the smaller lakes develop swampy fringes of vegetation, which are significant refuges for insects, notably dragonflies and damselflies.
There are several different types of grassland habitats in the Geopark, which provide ideal conditions for a rich variety of plants and animals. Lowland meadows are associated with low intensity farming practices enabling a wide variety of wildflowers such as yellow rattle, bulbous buttercup and meadow vetchling to flourish, forming a blaze of colour in the summer. Most areas of lowland meadow are in private ownership however, Tully Castle, Castle Archdale and the Shannon Pot are excellent places to view this habitat type. Look out for species such as ragged robin, water mint, oxyeye daisy, knapweed and the many butterflies, bees and moths that pollinate them.
The underlying Carboniferous limestone which dominates much of the Geopark landscape gives rise to several rare, interesting and notable habitat types. These calcareous habitats make a significant contribution to the biodiversity of the Geopark and many of these areas have been awarded protection through statutory designation. One such habitat type is limestone pavement which is a relict feature of the last Ice Age when huge ice sheets moved along the landscape removing large amounts of soils and vegetation exposing the underlying rock, which was then subject to thousands of years of weathering. Limestone pavement is formed as a result of a complex series of processes and is irreplaceable. It typically occurs in a mosaic with calcareous or limestone grasslands, which, as the name suggests, are simply grasslands formed over limestone rock. The best time to visit limestone grasslands is in Spring when many of the brightly coloured plant species are in bloom. Killykeegan and Crossmurrin Nature Reserve and the lower reaches of Cuilcagh Mountian Park are excellent locations to discover these unique habitats. Marl Lakes and Turloughs (water bodies where the water levels fluctuate throughout the year and can completely even dry up in the summer time) are other examples of rare habitats found locally and which are linked to the underlying limestone rock.
The limestone hills of Fermanagh and Cavan contain a large number of caves. Some caves have long horizontal passages with active streams running through them leading to big chambers, while other have soaring, vertical shafts plummeting to great depths. The caves form in limestone although there may be bands of shale or chert visible in the cave walls along with mud, sand and boulder deposits on the cave floor. Important cave species include bats, freshwater shrimps, moths and spiders. Marble Arch Caves are the best place in the Geopark to experience this hidden underworld.
For more information about the habitats and species found in our Geopark please visit the following websites:
Cavan County Council